Hawaii Fails To Pass Cannabis Legalization Bill

Hawaii Fails To Pass Cannabis Legalization Bill

Despite passing in the State Senate and receiving support from the governor, Hawaiian lawmakers still have yet to enact the much-anticipated reform.

In the battleground state of Hawaii, the effort to pass a measure to legalize recreational cannabis has stalled. According to multiple media outlets, a Senate-passed bill that would have legalized adult-use sales for those 21 and older and set up a regulatory framework similar to those in other states hit a legislative roadblock this week in the state's House of Representatives.


Unlike similar measures currently being considered nationwide, this legislation originated in the State Senate. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Joy San Buenaventura (D), cleared that chamber earlier this month. Moreover, there appeared to be significant optimism and momentum for the legislation to receive approval in the House.


However, due to an odd scheduling technicality, the bill could not be added to the House's legislative schedule before the deadline for bills referred to three or more committees, effectively ending any hope for ratification in 2023.


This outcome is unsurprising to political analysts and marijuana reformers in the country's youngest state. Despite both chambers of the State House and the Governor's office being under Democratic control, the senior leadership in the House has consistently opposed cannabis legalization reforms in the past.


In 2021 a similar bill passed in the Senate but also stalled in the House after failing to meet that same scheduling deadline. Furthermore, this past February, the House leadership successfully defeated three new proposals to legalize adult-use marijuana before the current measure's passage in the Senate.


As Nikos Leverenz of the Drug Policy Forum on Hawaii explained in an interview, "It's disappointing but not surprising that House leadership has failed to consider moving adult-use cannabis legalization forward this year. Hopefully, those in the House who oppose rational reforms will come forward and disclose why Hawaii residents deserve less than those in other states."


"It's disappointing but not surprising that House leadership has failed to consider moving adult-use cannabis legalization forward this year. Hopefully, those in the House who oppose rational reforms will come forward and disclose why Hawaii residents deserve less than those in other states."

- Nikos Leverenz of the Drug Policy Forum on Hawaii


Prior to its approval in the Senate, the measure underwent significant changes, including:

  • Establishing civil penalties for unlicensed cannabis growth and distribution activities.
  • Protection for employers seeking to prohibit cannabis use amongst their employees.
  • Prohibition of advertising within 1,000 feet of any youth-centered area.
  • Adding language to expunge past marijuana-related criminal records for Hawaiians.
  • Proposed licensing of cultivation, manufacturing, testing and retail facilities that would ensure a properly regulated industry while also preventing future consolidation and monopoly control of cannabis dispensaries.

With those updated amendments, the bill passed by an overwhelming 22-3 margin. Following that vote, an adviser for recently elected Governor Josh Green (D) made it clear that the state's new chief executive would likely sign the measure.


In a statement, the adviser said, "Governor Green supports legalized use of cannabis by adults, providing that any legislation that emerges protects public safety and consumers and assures product safety with testing and tracking. The Governor also seeks to ensure the continued viability of our medical cannabis industry. If a bill passes the legislature that accounts for his primary concerns, he has indicated he will likely sign it."


"Governor Green supports legalized use of cannabis by adults, providing that any legislation that emerges protects public safety and consumers and assures product safety with testing and tracking. The Governor also seeks to ensure the continued viability of our medical cannabis industry. If a bill passes the legislature that accounts for his primary concerns, he has indicated he will likely sign it."

- Adviser to Hawaii Governor Josh Green (D)


Along with the Senate and the Governor's office, most Hawaiians also support marijuana reform. A poll taken earlier this year indicated that 52% of them favor legalizing recreational cannabis for adults 21 and older, while only 31% opposed it.


Speaking on behalf of House leadership, Speaker Scott Saiki (D) attempted to explain the rationale behind their decision to delay a vote. In an interview with Civil Beat, he shared that "(I think) it best for the state to wait on approving recreational marijuana use. (We) would rather see a working group analyze the idea over the summer."


Thankfully, Hawaii's legislative process has another unique element providing optimism for those industry stakeholders and lawmakers still hoping to get the measure passed sooner than later. Because Hawaii has a two-year legislative cycle, the bill still has the opportunity to stay alive and receive approval from the House in 2024 without starting from ground zero.


During that interim period, activists and legislative champions for legal adult-use marijuana in Hawaii will closely monitor the State House. They will also be holding leaders like Rep. Saiki accountable for the promises made concerning this issue during the pivotal legislative cycle.


DeVaughn Ward, Senior Legislative Counsel at the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), shares, "MPP and other advocates will be counting on House leadership and committee chairs to keep their word and work on the bill in the off-session. We're hopeful 2024 will be the year Hawaii legalizes."


"MPP and other advocates will be counting on House leadership and committee chairs to keep their word and work on the bill in the off-session. We're hopeful 2024 will be the year Hawaii legalizes."

- DeVaughn Ward, Senior Legislative Counsel at the Marijuana Policy Project


As the movement to legalize recreational marijuana use enters its second decade, more and more states and their leaders finally recognize the economic and political power of legalizing cannabis. Hawaii's battle is just the latest showdown in what will undoubtedly be many more to come, including the biggest one - the end of federal prohibition. Aloha!